Even when everything goes right, it’s hard enough to hold off a 250-boat field to win a tournament like the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Team Championship.
If you cut the final day’s fishing time by nearly 50%, the task gets that much harder.
Collin Smith and Brady Kimbrell powered through a fog-shortened tournament on Lake Hartwell, however, and won the team championship with a two-day total of 10 bass weighing 30 pounds, 13 ounces. The duo caught 16-10 on Day 1 and followed with 14-3 a day later to seal the win.
While those aren’t huge numbers, they’re impressive considering Thursday’s start was delayed by three hours and fifteen minutes because of dense fog. Day 1 also started late, by some 90 minutes, further cutting into the time teams had to ply Hartwell’s bass-rich waters.
Smith and Kimbrell, who fish with the South Carolina-based 5 Alive Sunday Series, will split a $25,000 cash prize for the win, part of a $120,000 total cash purse distributed to the Top 50 teams. And as one of the Top 3 teams in the team portion of this derby, they’ll advance to fish in the Bassmaster Classic Fish-Off to be held Friday and Saturday.
Joining them in the fish-off are Tyler Campbell and Joe Mitchell of the 5 Alive Team Trail, who finished second with a pair of limits for a two-day total of 30-4. Chris Nelson and Jeremy Strong of the Palmetto Boat Center Team Trail (South Carolina) weighed in a two-day total of 29-15 to place third and also make the cut.
All those weights have been zeroed and the six anglers will fish individually the next two days, with the winner claiming the final spot in the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic to be held March 24-26 on the Tennessee River in Knoxville, Tenn.
Smith and Kimbrell, both residents of Anderson, S.C., knew familiarity with Hartwell put them in a position to fare well this week. Still, the lengthy delay Thursday morning didn’t ease the anxiety to get back on the water after finishing Day 1 tied for second place.
“We got to socialize most of the morning and tried to keep the mood light,” Smith said. “But it was nerve-wracking. We felt like the pressure was on us, this being our home pond. We had to keep each other sane, for sure.”
Smith, 27, and Kimbrell, 34, fished timber in the deepest parts of Hartwell with a variety of lures, though they didn’t share exactly which baits they threw. They did say, though, that they needed a variety of looks to get the tight-lipped spotted bass biting this week. Fishing was made tough not only by thick fog but also by a warming trend that sent water and air temperatures climbing following last weekend’s chill.
“It was tough all day,” Kimbrell said. “We caught a few here and there, but the last one we caught came at 3:51 (p.m., only nine minutes before check-in). It was the first bite we had in about three hours, and it was a 1 1/2-pound cull. It came at a great time.”
Smith said after combining for 30 bites on Day 1, he and Kimbrell only boated eight or nine bass on Thursday. They got the right bites, though.
“We knew if we swung the rods nine or 10 times, things could work in our favor,” Smith said.
After teaming for $25,000 and the Team Championship trophy, the local anglers said they’re looking forward to competing against one another and four other competitors in the fish-off.
“This being our home pond, we have enough stuff. There’s plenty to go around,” Kimbrell said.
“And at the end of this,” Smith continued, “we’re still best friends. Nothing gets in the way of that.”
Campbell and Mitchell, a pair of 21-year-olds from nearby Martin, Ga., weighed the heaviest bag on Day 2 — a 16-8 limit — to jump from 19th place to second overall. They also have a deep knowledge of Hartwell, fishing here as many as six days a week, Campbell said, and have been best friends for as long as they can remember.
“We’re fishing deep and mixing it up a little bit,” said Campbell, who fishes for Emmanuel College. “We’re throwing a shaky head and a Keitech worm; just rotating through a lot of bottom baits.”
Mitchell said he’s looking forward to the fish-off, regardless of the outcome.
“This is gonna be awesome,” he said. “We’re both competitive, so it’ll be fun.”
Nelson and Strong were fourth after Day 1, and their 13-12 limit on Thursday vaulted them into a podium finish.
“Today was harder obviously, and it put us behind a little bit,” Nelson said. “We started slower than we did yesterday. But we kept grinding and were able to cull a couple of times throughout the day.”
Three of the 10 bass they weighed were largemouth, which likely gave them the few extra ounces they needed to make the cut.
“They were among the bigger fish,” Strong said. “After an hour or so, it picked up. We had to slow down. We were throwing spoons and drop shots in 30 to 50 feet.”
“You have to be thorough,” Nelson added. “It takes some time.”
Billy Baugus and Matthew Garvin with the USA Bassin Trail won the $500 Big Bass Award with a 5-8 they caught on Thursday.
The Bassmaster Classic Fish-Off is scheduled to begin on Friday at 7 a.m. ET from Green Pond Landing and Event Center, with weigh-in set for 3 p.m. back at Green Pond Landing and Event Center. Follow the action on Bassmaster.com.
This week’s Team Championship and Classic Fish-Off are being hosted by Visit Anderson.